Lone parent, single parent, one-parent family, independent parent, non-married parent, alone parent, autonomous parent: the words or terms used to identify, or self-identify, adults who parent independently are diverse and subjective, and they have evolved over the years. While our choice of labels may seem trivial, language is powerful and loaded – it shapes how we see the world and the people in it. These familial terms, and the respective ideas they aim to convey, are at best blurry. What can seem like a valid category to one person may be considered a stereotype by another, and these labels can carry stigma with them that has an impact on family well-being and identity – particularly for single mothers,1 who account for 8 in 10 single parents in Canada.
Many labels are used to categorize “lone parents”
Statistics Canada uses the term lone parent to identify “Mothers or fathers, with no married spouse or common-law partner present, living in a dwelling with one or more children.” They are not alone in this choice of terminology: the UK’s Office for National Statistics also utilizes the term lone parent/lone parent family, as does the UK government’s statistics website. The Australia Bureau of Statistics, meanwhile, uses the term one-parent family and Statistics New Zealand lists the term sole parent in its definitions of census family classifications but tends to defer to the same terminology as Australia in census information-related texts.
The United States Census Bureau uses a number of different terms in their definitions and reports; phrases including female householder, no husband present, single parent and lone parent are used to describe different family and/or household structures. In Engendering Motherhood, sociologist Martha McMahon frequently uses the term “unwed mother”; however, this text is now 20 years old and, once a commonly used term, “unwed mother” is now infrequently applied in either dialogue or in media content. To many people, the phrase may now seem dated, archaic and even tied to (and measured more by) religious doctrine.
In a sense, none of the terms commonly used to identify single mothers are satisfactory in their ability to capture family experiences, because they use deficit language. Lone mothers and sole mothers could suggest to some that these parents are “on their own,” without supports, while many of these parents may have rich networks of support that include family, friends, community organizations and even former partners. One-parent families suggests a similar isolation, whereas the child(ren) in these families may have two parents, even if the parents have ended their relationship. Whereas single parent/s, as with “unwed mother,” suggests a deviation from a married-parent norm, it is rare for a determining label of “married parent/s” to be used in conversation or in text unless focusing specifically on the topics of parenting and marriage.
Overall, the use of a variety of terms does seem like a more sensitive, considerate and inclusive approach that is more appreciative of complex family forms and provides options for identifying families. Whether intended or not, what the differing US Census Bureau terms and more modern, emerging phrases such as autonomous parent and independent parent do signify is that terminology related to being a single parent seems to be evolving and progressing in a way that attributes power to the parent’s choice of familial circumstance.
Terms have changed over time, as have family experiences and realities
The use of single-parent synonyms and their attributed meanings have developed over time, reflecting ever-changing family realities. According to Statistics Canada, the proportion of lone parents in our nation is not drastically different from what it was 100 years ago, and it was nearly as high in 1931 (11.9%) as it was in 1981 (12.7%). But what does differ, is the reason behind those numbers, that is, a modern-day choice of relationship status versus a latter-day result of circumstance, often related to mortality rates. As highlighted in the Statistics Canada report Enduring Diversity: Living Arrangements of Children in Canada over 100 Years of the Census:
… diverse family living arrangements were in many cases a result of the death of one or more family members. Death within the family – of siblings, of mothers during or following complications from childbirth, of fathers serving in war, for example – was a much more common experience for young children in the early 20th century than today. In 1921, about 1 in 11 (8.9%) children aged 15 and under had experienced the death of at least one parent, while 4.1% had experienced the death of both parents.
The researchers go on to point out, “In comparison, in 2011, less than 1% of children aged 0 to 14 lived in a lone-parent family in which the parent was widowed.”
Throughout Canada’s history, there have been diverse paths to parenting independently, such as through adoption, sperm/egg donation, surrogacy, in vitro fertilization (IVF) or through separation, divorce from, or death of, a partner – or there never having been a partner in terms of a relationship to begin with. To avoid reinforcing stereotypes, it is important in any discussion about single parents to acknowledge this diversity and avoid generalization or homogenization.
Family labels can have an impact on identities
The language and terms we use to identify family forms matter, as they can carry negative connotations and meaning. An example of this can be found in the 2011 Census definition of family, in which Statistics Canada included stepfamilies for the first time:
A couple family with children may be further classified as either an intact family in which all children are the biological and/or adopted children of both married spouses or of both common-law partners or a stepfamily with at least one biological or adopted child of only one married spouse or common-law partner and whose birth or adoption preceded the current relationship.
While counting stepfamilies is a positive step toward capturing diverse family forms, the decision to contrast this with the label “intact family” could suggest, to some, that families deviating from this status are not intact, that is, not whole or complete due to lack of a partner living under the same roof as a parent and their child.
Labels such as single mother or single parent may also not be terms some people feel comfortable with. For example, in an online article entitled “Single Mother Was Not a Title I Wanted to Own. A Year Later It Still Isn’t,” blogger Mavis King writes how both she, and other mothers, do not want to be labelled as “single mothers”:
The problem with being a “single mum”… is the negative connotations it can conjure. At their worst single mums are associated with welfare, dole-bludging, unkempt and unruly kids. The single mother is just keeping it together, just scraping by. She’s not a heroine, no she’s responsible for her plight. She should have known better, should have never married him, shouldn’t have had children. And what about the kids? She’s selfish, the kids won’t do well at school, they’re worse off than their friends.
However, some parents proudly take ownership of wording that communicates their self-sufficiency. On the Wealthy Single Mommy blog, for example, Emma Johnson writes, “I feel totally fine calling myself a single mom: I float my family financially and am the primary caretaker of my kids.”
Stigma related to “lone motherhood” can affect family well-being
Negative stereotypes about single mothers such as those described by King, that is, assumptions that single mothers are struggling and irresponsible, or that their children are worse off than others, are often fuelled and reinforced in the media. A recent post-graduate study I completed focused on the representation of single mothers in Canadian news media found that coverage typically followed three main trends: a negatively biased dichotomy of representation, homogenization of single mothers and application of the term “single mother” being connected to gender-related identification of familial status rather than relevance to article information.
These depictions bolster stereotypes that can have measurable consequences. For example, in a 2011 study into rental discrimination, single mothers were found to be more than 14% less likely to be granted a positive reply to rental inquiries than a (heterosexual) couple. Similarly, women who participated in a qualitative focus group for my dissertation research reported that the stigma of being labelled a single mother had acted as a barrier that prevented them from leaving negative situations, including statements such as, “I was more scared of being a single mom than of staying in an abusive relationship.”
Family labels gloss over diverse experiences
While many texts claim that being raised in a home by single parents may predispose children to negative outcomes, some research challenges the causal relationship between growing up in a single-parent family and detrimental outcomes. As researchers Don Kerr and Roderic Beaujot point out, “Studies that do not take into account the pre-existing difficulties of children and their families have a tendency to overstate the effect of growing up in a single-parent family.” There are many circumstances in which mothers have created healthier environments for themselves and their children precisely because they ended a negative relationship to become single mothers.
Often, it seems that resources, such as money, time and community supports (i.e. extended family, friends and other community members) have a more significant impact on child and parent experience and/or outcome than a parent’s relationship status. As Jon Bernardes states in Family Studies: An Introduction, “Whilst Queen Victoria was a single parent for many years, she is not thought of as a ‘problem parent.’”
However, what is perhaps most important to note is that children tend not to care about how the census categorizes their parents, nor do they tend to repeatedly quantify any kind of relationship status distinction when speaking about their parents. While they may initially share their familial status with friends – for example, “It’s just me and my dad” or “My dad doesn’t live with us” – there’s most likely an informal, colloquial tone to this statement. It’s highly unlikely that, once this personal information is shared, any future descriptions of an event or issue linked to their parent/s includes determining terminology such as “my single father” or “my lone parent mother.” They most likely simply say “my mom” or “my dad” or “my whomever” with a sense of confident, unconditional, personal belonging and attachment marking the initial, and perhaps most crucial, signifier in that type of statement: “my.”
1 This article frequently uses the terms “single mothers” and “single parents” for consistency, but as it discusses, there are many recognized and preferred terms in use.
Victoria Bailey is a freelance writer and a student of women’s studies. She lives and works in Calgary, Alberta.